Saturday, April 03, 2021

Henry Weinfield’s As the Crow Flies

Henry Weinfield’s As the Crow Flies (Dos Madres Press, 2021), reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos


I have read Henry Weinfield’s new poetry collection, As the Crow Flies, with a certain kind of limited pleasure. There is wit in these poems, satiric allusiveness, clever puns, unexpected rhymes, all delivered in classic (some might call archaic) forms. As I read, however, I found myself measuring the gap between my admiration for the poetic conventions Weinfield cleverly employs and my exasperation at the “straightjacketing” effect these forms have on the thematic and philosophical values he attempts to render through them.

In the collections opening poem, “The Ironies,” Weinfield establishes his poetic modus operandi. Heavily dependent on rhyme, meter, and repetition, the poem is a rumination on the vicissitudes of that determine the course and shape of one’s life: “What was it that you thought you had to say?/--Though possibly you said it anyway:/ It turned out different than you thought./ . . . / The things that you evaded or forgot/Were details deeply woven in the plot./ You couldn’t ever have imagined it.” There is truth in what Weinfield’s asserts in his verse, but it is a truth we’ve heard many times before, as in Robert Burns’s “To a Mouse,” (composed in 1785) in which we are told “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men/ Gang aft agley,/ An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,/For promis’d joy!” There are disappointments in life we can’t anticipate, Weinstein similarly reminds us: “It didn’t seem impossible to seize/ The golden apples of the Hesperides/Where the eternal verities prevailed.” But, philosophically, Weinstein doesn’t take us much further. His “Ironies” concludes with the limp assertion that we can’t have all that we want: “Like everyone you wanted everything/ (The autumn simultaneous with the spring)—/ For which no kind of medicine availed.” This ending contrasts unflatteringly with Burns’s, who doesn’t merely reiterate our desire to “collapse” time (i.e., deem “autumn simultaneous with spring”). Rather, Burns, by contrasting the human epistemological state with the mouse’s, takes the philosophy to a more compelling conclusion: we are congenitally more miserable than the mouse precisely because we can’t help but distinguish past, present, and future: “Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!/ The present only toucheth thee:/ But Och! I backward cast my e’e,/ On prospects drear!/ An’ forward tho’ I canna see,/ I guess an’ fear!”

The question remains: does an adherence to well-travelled conventions limit one to equally hashed over conclusions? Does Weinstein’s cleverness in rhyming “seize” with “Hesperides” (while at the same time providing the reader with an allusion to classical mythology) truly enlighten the reader with something new? Or are the allusions and formal conventions simply ornaments to disguise shopworn philosophy? I’d like to believe that Weinfield is, in fact, satirizing the conventions, and that many of his poems are intended to demonstrate what leaky vehicles these forms prove to be for fresh thought. But if Weinfield wants us to take the theme of “Ironies” and many of his other poems at face value, he fails to achieve Pope’s idea of “true wit,” which is to satisfy the reader with “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.”

Don’t get me wrong—there is much to admire in Weinfield’s ambitious (and often entertaining) long poems, such as “L’Dor V’Dor: Chant of the Jews of Michiana As They Contemplate the Past and the Future,” which provides a capsule version of the Jewish diaspora from shtetls to the Midwest of the United States. But the poet’s insistence on traditional forms too often yields unfortunate rhymes and twisted syntax: “Living in constant fear of a pogrom,/ Not knowing when the Cossacks next would come.” Similarly clever in conception, if not execution, is Weinfield’s “Paradise Lost: A Poem in Twelve Books: The Shorter Version.” The poem is introduced by a pair of epigraphs which inform the reader of the poem’s satiric intent: Samuel Johnson states of Milton’s masterpiece, “None ever wished it longer than it is.” And Milton himself refers to “the troublesome and modern bondage of Riming.” And so Weinfield’s version proceeds, ingeniously compressing Milton’s work, while at the same time illustrating the points made in the epigraphs. But such efforts can be extreme and tedious, as with “Book XI” of the poem, in which eighteen of the first twenty-five lines have end-words that rhyme with “plight.” To my mind, “true wit” is not “expressed” by emulating problematic verse form. As Tom Stoppard’s Player suggests in his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, establishing a point through verisimilitude doesn’t necessarily yield great art: “I had an actor once who was condemned to hang . . . so I got permission to have him hanged in the middle of a play . . . and you wouldn’t believe it, he just wasn’t convincing! It was impossible to suspend one’s disbelief . . . the while thing was a disaster!—he did nothing but cry all the time—right out of character.” The Milton epigraph seems to be sufficient on its own: it’s both amusing and sobering that he found rhyme to be “bondage.” It’s neither entertaining nor enlightening for Weinfield to prove the point with a flood of rhyme—it’s only boring.

And yet, when Weinfield is at his best, he is a skilled craftsmen and thoughtful philosopher, capable of producing poetic gems that are more than the “gestures of a jester” (my own brief parody of Weinfield’s poems in this collection, many of which are rife with punning). “Fragment of an Injunction to the Poets of the Future” begins with the simple assertion, “There is no God,” and concludes, “Forget the myth,/ The heroic journey to the Underworld./ The underworld to which you have been hurled/ Is this world—here you are and here it is./ You must abandon all mythologies.” Here Weinstein’s rhymes and allusions support his thematic intent: “hurled” and “world” work together in lines that are syntactically straightforward, and the whiff of Dante’s warning at the gates of Hell drives home the irony of Weinfield’s theme. The brief poem “The Afterlife” is clever and thought-provoking without being rendered in torturous diction and uncomfortable rhymes; the repetition and punning are central to the poem’s impact:

“The afterlife/Was after life./ There was no life/ That was not life.”

The poems that touch upon Weinfield’s personal memories are breaths of fresh air in this volume. “To Carla, in Lieu of the Lost Poem I Gave her in High School” reveals an irony that is more than simply clever; it is heartfelt. Regarding his youthful romance, Weinfield writes, “You never let me go too far,/ Wise young virgin that you were/ . . ./ So every afternoon I’d burn/ With longing, which itself was sweet./ It was too soon—we had to wait./ But then too soon it was too late./ For waiting soon became too long/ For so much longing—we were young: / Ours was an old familiar song.” “Old” and “familiar,” yes, but also vivid and poignant, personal, yet universal—the irony in the poem is meaningful, not mere cleverness.

Too often the poems in As the Crow Flies seem like exhibition for exhibition’s sake: rhyme, meter, and allusion are the sparkling things for which his crow seems to be searching. An exception might be found in one of the volume’s later poems, found in the section “From Old Notebooks.” This poem, “George Oppen’s Eyes,” (I think we can forgive in this instance Weinfield’s title pun), reveals without artificial adornment what Weinfield values in poetry: “Among the poets, yours were the only eyes/ That never dimmed themselves in fantasies,/ Or looked to compromise the poet’s craft/ Out of a vain desire to be heard./ The only motive for your poetry/ Was clarity, you said, your favorite word./ I looked upon you as another father,/ And hoped I might find favor in your eyes.” The values expressed in this poem seem to contradict those evident in too many of the others in the volume. Perhaps it’s only a matter of taste, but I prefer the succinct crafting of a poem like “The Afterlife” and the pathos of the personal “To Carla,” both of which provide “clarity” without “compromise[ing] the poet’s craft.

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